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Understanding The Cause of Headaches

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

headaches, migraines, tmj exercises, neck pain relief, tension headache
Emptying Out Your Headache Cup

It is estimated that some 80% of people experience some form of a headache on a daily basis. What is not normal is living in pain, especially when it disrupts your ability to function at your full potential. This article is written to give you more insight into what causes headaches. Research shows that the more you understand about pain and headaches, the better you will be are reducing or eliminating them.

Think of headaches like this... imagine there is a cup in your head that fills up as you experience irritating stimulation. Once the cup overflows, you get a headache.

So how do we stop overflow?

Well overflow happens when the nerves of the brain are receiving too much irritating stimulation or triggers. For example, say you only sleep 4 hours, your cup may fill up 1/4 of the way, next you are later to work which makes you aggravated, your cup fills up to the 1/2 way point, next you have a presentation to give which stresses you out, now you are 3/4 of the way full, and finally, you strain your neck on the drive home, now you are 100% full and water pours over the sides of the cup, creating a headache.

Now let's look at what specifically what structures trigger your cup to fill up. There are many factors that trigger what we call 'danger messages' in the brain (these are what start filling up your cup). This can be triggered by either mental, emotional or physical stimulus (or stresses). Sensitive tissues and blood vessels around the head, neck, and face are the most common areas that can trigger a headache.


We have joints and muscles in our neck, head, and face that are very sensitive and send hazard signals with our nerves to act as an alarm system. This is actually very normal and protective. It is essentially warning you that something is irritated and that you should remove the stimulus or stop the behavior. Neck pain, TMJ pain, shoulder pain and others would fall in this category.

Blood Vessels

The large number of blood vessels that are around the brain are very sensitive because they act as security. Any changes to the blood vessels such as pressure and hormones and any changes to the nerves such as stress and anxiety will intensify the danger signals. These changes will ultimately lead to a headache (if the cup overflows). For example, during a neck injury, muscles will tighten up and blood vessels will change their blood flow. Then nerves start to become irritated due to the chemicals being produced from the injury. Once enough danger signals have gone off then the brain is alerted and pain is produced to protect you.

Why Do I Hurt When I Haven’t Had An Injury?

I know what you're thinking, sometimes I get a headache out of no where! Many headaches do not start off from an accident and many headache sufferers have never experienced an injury, so why does the pain happen? There are over 300 different types of headaches that could be the cause of emotions, posture, muscle or joint restrictions, stress, food, and genetics that could set off the alarm system. Of course, everyone would want to pinpoint the exact cause of the headache, but it’s so hard to narrow it down to one factor. It is very often multiple factors that are leading to a headache (which collectively fill up your cup).

The other thing to consider is the more frequently that someone has headaches, the more easily another headache can get triggered. This can happen because your 'cup' never empty's out, instead it is always partially full. So now less of the irritants mentioned earlier will overflow your cup.

So how do you reduce regular headaches?

You have to get your cup to fully empty out, once accomplished, you can tolerate regular and multiple irritating stimulants (or triggers) and it won't turn in to a headache!

For example, if your schedule has been crazy, so you're sleeping less, and maybe you're stressed out big time due to work or personal reasons. That may not be enough to give you a headache, but if you have some underlying neck, TMJ, shoulder, or upper back issue, that may be the bit that overflows the cup. Ruling out any type of musculoskeletal issue should be your first step in your fight against headaches because it is an easy fix. From there you can use various strategies to reduce the other irritating stimuli. This could including meditation for de-stressing, change of diet, improved hydration, better sleep pattern, or postural training.

Hope you learned a lot from this article! Now that you understand why they happen, we will write a follow up article to identify the best techniques to reduce headaches and empty out your cup!

Take Away Messages:

  1. If you can determine the triggers for a headache, that’s great! It can be used to address what to do for a treatment plan.

  2. If you can 'empty out your cup', you can tolerate more regularly occurring irritating stimuli without it causing a headache.

  3. Ruling out musculoskeletal problems such as neck, TMJ, or shoulder issues is a great place to start getting quick relief!

👉🏽👉🏽If you are experiencing ongoing headaches and want answers NOW, we recommend a Free Discovery Session. You get a chance to tell us what you've been experiencing and ask any questions you may have. We will give you our best advice as to what steps you should take to get back to living your life at it's full potential. It is a no obligation, no forms to sign, no credit card required, totally free consultation. This can be done Virtually or In The Clinic

👉🏽Or, Get our Headache Specialists FREE Guide with Tips for Quick Headache Relief:

If you have further questions regarding this blog post or other tips that can help you to relieve your headache, Contact Us at Skyline Physical Therapy!

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